On the page: the highs and lows of cotton

QCL 85: technology and genetics that changed the cotton industry

Cotton
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For a commodity that in 1939 was reported would "never become an export industry", cotton has changed dramatically over the past 85 years.

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Many things have changed within the cotton industry since Queensland cotton was loaded onto the SS Westmorland bound for Liverpool, England in July 1921, but some traces of history can still be seen today. (Top image supplied by Cotton Australia.)

Many things have changed within the cotton industry since Queensland cotton was loaded onto the SS Westmorland bound for Liverpool, England in July 1921, but some traces of history can still be seen today. (Top image supplied by Cotton Australia.)

For a commodity that in 1939 was reported would "never become an export industry", cotton has grown over the past 85 years to become an industry that generates $2 billion a year in export earnings.

Reflecting in 1945 on the considerable decline of cotton production in Queensland, QCL reported that the record crop was in 1934 "when this state harvested 17,471 bales off approximately 50,000 acres".

In April 1951, QCL reported the "Record Price For Cotton", with "a final payment of 11d. lb. raw cotton... making the total net payment to growers for the 1950 season 31.5d. per lb. raw cotton".

From then, coverage of record highs and lows expanded.

In 2005, the Australian crop set a new world record yield, leading to a 2.9 million-bale crop, while the May 17, 2012 edition boasted the headline "Woe to go for cotton crop".

The story by Colin Bettles detailed a record harvest for the 2011/12 growing season that saw more than 583,000 hectares planted to produce the largest national crop on record for a total of 5.3 million bales.

At the time, Cotton Australia CEO Adam Kay said: "When we think back to record crops in the early 1990s, where the biggest crop was 3.6m bales, and to then go through the recent drought of the past decade where we wondered if we'd ever see 2m bales again, to bounce back like this is absolutely phenomenal."

The highs reported on almost a decade ago won't be seen this year, with QCL reporting on April 23, 2020 that the crop "is the lowest planted since the 1980s", estimated to be 600,000 bales.

The technology and genetics revolution

The growth of the Australian cotton industry from a "financial headache" to an economic powerhouse came by way of game-changing plant breeding and mechanical advancements.

Up until 1939, the Queensland Cotton Board had reportedly never been consulted by the Department of Agriculture and Stock "as to types of cotton that should be grown to suit the requirements of purchasers", resulting in a "retrogression in production per acre".

But a state government inquiry rectified this, heralding plans for irrigation facilities, farmer instructions to improve technique, and accelerated research into plant breeding, pests, diseases, soils, and fertilisers.

On August 7, 1947 the paper reported on strains of cotton specifically bred for jassid resistance being grown in Thangool, while the October 5, 1950 edition publicised new triple hybrid cotton varieties being announced by the United States Department of Agriculture.

"It offers a range of fibre strength almost double that of present commercial fibres, can be processed more simply with less waste than synthetic fibres, and has given cotton an easy lead over synthetics in the textile field."

Early development of the industry was slowed by a shortage of labour to pick the cotton, but that changed in the late 1940s when the crop looked to be "staging a comeback on the Theodore irrigation settlement" with the introduction of a mechanical picker.

The May 19,1949 edition detailed the new McCormick-Deering invention that worked "on the principle of rotating drums on which are numerous rows of revolving tapered spindles".

"These spindles are roughened and they are moistened each revolution by the sponge method. The rotating drums, suitably housed, pass each side of the plant and the spindles twist the dry fibre from the boll. The spindle then contacts a doffer, freeing it of the fibre which is cyclone-fed to an overhead cage whence it is baled. The picker and its mechanism are driven by a 3-wheel tractor specially fitted for the job."

More cotton pickers - including "the 'Selective' type and the 'Snap' picker" - arrived throughout the '50s, freeing the industry of "a bottleneck" created by the labour shortage and saw it compare "more than favourably with sugar" and outpace beef.

The ensuing years saw the cotton industry gain pace, bolstered by the likes of Ingard cotton being commercially released in 1996, and the first transgenic cotton varieties to have two independently acting Bt genes being introduced in Australia in 2003.

Perhaps the biggest change from a layman's perspective was in 2010 when the first round modules were produced.

The January 14, 2010 edition noted "a new breed of mechanised pickers" making their commercial debut in Queensland.

"As the March picking season approaches, the spotlight will fall on one of the greatest ever advances to be seen in broadacre paddocks with the arrival of new-style module-building pickers.

"John Deere's 7760 cotton picker is designed to neatly build and package bolls into bumper-sized bales as it works its way down rows. Previously, conventional cotton pickers required supporting infrastructure such as boll buggies, headland-based module builders, and associated tractors and labour."

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